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Opinion The Matamoros kidnapping is a wake-up call

Soldiers patrol near the Forensic Medical Service morgue building ahead of the transfer of the bodies of two of four Americans kidnapped by gunmen to the U.S. border, in Matamoros, Mexico, March 9, 2023. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril (Daniel Becerril/Reuters)
4 min

Last Friday, after crossing into Matamoros, one of northern Mexico’s most dangerous cities, four American citizens were taken at gunpoint. The harrowing images of the kidnapping led to an immediate outcry in the United States. For days, major networks opened their newscasts with the story. The FBI offered a $50,000 reward for the return of the victims and information on their captors. The White House vowed to “bring those responsible to justice.”

As pressure from the United States mounted, something very unusual happened in Mexico: The crime was quickly solved.

After video of the attack became public, it took Mexican authorities 24 hours to find the kidnapped Americans. On Tuesday, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took a phone call, live during his daily news conference, from the governor of Tamaulipas. The group had been found, the governor said. They had been held in a safe house in the outskirts of Matamoros. Two had been killed.

Outrage in the United States had other, equally surprising consequences. The Gulf Cartel, also known as the CDG, whose stronghold in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas has penetrated deep across the Texas border, took the unprecedented step of apologizing. It apparently left five of their people, bound, in the middle of Matamoros, along with a note asking for “forgiveness” for what had happened. “We are committed to avoiding these mistakes caused by indiscipline,” the note read. “The CDG asks society to be calm.”

The call for social calm from such a violent organization is telling. In Mexico, the swift resolution of the Matamoros attack has been a stark reminder of the helplessness endured by the vast majority of Mexicans. People in Mexico can’t count on anything like the remarkable expediency of the Matamoros investigation, let alone organized crime’s contrition. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Scenes like the recent kidnapping are not limited to Tamaulipas. Violence threatens daily life in vast regions of Mexico. It is no coincidence that the State Department now considers only two of the 32 states in Mexico safe for travel.

Crime has festered because of the impunity with which criminals operate in Mexico. More than 94 percent of crimes in the country languish unresolved. Failure of the rule of law is particularly serious in cases such as the one in Matamoros. There are more than 100,000 unsolved forced disappearances on record. According to a recent report from the U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances, “almost absolute” impunity persists in the country. For a Mexican family that has suffered the disappearance of a loved one, prompt action by the government is almost unfathomable.

“If they acted this swiftly in the search for our disappeared, they would all be found,” said Cecilia Flores, a Mexican woman who has spent the last seven years looking for her children.

Maria Elena Morera, a well-known public safety activist, told me that Mexican authorities often “disregard” these disappearances. “In Mexico, justice can take months or years. Sometimes, even a lifetime,” she said.

Unfortunately, U.S. authorities have taken the wrong lesson from the tragedy in Matamoros. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has suggested extreme measures, such as formally designating cartels as terrorist organizations, a decision that would open the door to military operations inside Mexican territory.

Such a move would be folly. As White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre recently explained, designating cartels as terrorist organizations would do little to grant the government “any additional authorities” that it doesn’t already have. Entertaining the idea of further military involvement in Mexico would immediately open dangerous old wounds in the bilateral relationship. Trust between the two countries should be strengthened, not threatened.

Indeed, Mexicans don’t need threats of U.S. military intervention to improve the situation on the ground. Instead, the United States should seize the moment and work to strengthen Mexican institutions. The Biden administration could be a more forceful advocate for Mexican democracy and rule of law — a debate it has only timidly entered, perhaps in fear of antagonizing López Obrador. The weakening of Mexico’s independent institutions benefits organized crime. The cartels’ sense of impunity, a sense that contributed to the brazen daylight attack in Matamoros, must end. It has eaten away at the right to basic safety for tens of millions of Mexicans.

The crisis should also lead to an acknowledgment of the real origin of the cartels’ power: the endless appetite for drugs in the United States, and America’s seemingly endless supply of weaponry for Mexican criminal organizations.

A broader reckoning is required. We need to take stock of what needs to be done to start to turn the tide. Without such an effort, things will only get worse.